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The Real 'West Side Story' : Racial strife and murders in Venice make headlines. But beneath the surface studies of gangs and drugs, cross-cultural alliances bloom there--and everywhere


Kochitlmilco Santos stops mid-step. She squats to scoop up yellowed newspaper wedged into the mesh of a chain-link fence on the Venice leg of Rose Avenue.

"This is the problem," she says, her long black hair slicing the wind like an angry whip. She points to a photo of two bloody victims of the June 10 shooting outside Venice High School--a retaliation widely attributed to the mercurial nature of local black and Latino gang violence. The killings pushed the number of violent deaths in Venice this year to 17. And although Santos' voice is soft, there is fury in her eyes.

It's the rumors. The photos, the headlines, the television. The problem is that all that harsh light removes the shadows, the shades of gray.

All of it, Santos says, just makes building cultural and racial bridges that much more difficult.

Whenever a shot goes up in the middle of the night, it is that shot--and what lies in its wake--that arrests full media attention. Not the strides that Santos, or any number of community organizers, teachers, parents or students have diligently taken for years to keep tempers calm and build coalitions across racial and ethnic lines.

In this complicated community, beneath the media's quick-gloss surface studies of gangs and drugs and angry battles between blacks and browns, cross-cultural alliances bloom--even flourish.

Yet these much more remarkable tales, despite their against-many-odds successes, too often go unreported.

It might not happen on the first try, maybe not even the second, but in Venice--and all over the city--Angelenos are working to nurture understanding, hope and a sense of common ground. And many, even to their own surprise, are quietly succeeding.

The violence and the tension erupting in this community, and others like it across the Southland, have tangled roots beyond a neat "West Side Story" premise of hate based on the difference of skin color.

Certainly some of the conflict is based on difference, admits Santos, who has lived in Venice for 12 years and in troubled Oakwood for 2 1/2. But there is so much more that tips the very sensitive balance.

Venice isn't the only corner of the city at a difficult-to-read signpost at the crossroads.

As demographics dramatically shift, the largely black and Latino enclaves such as Watts, Compton, and Venice's Oakwood neighborhood have taken turns finding themselves in an undesirable spotlight.

From "mysterious" instances of arson to drive-by shootings clipping innocent bystanders, residents ponder a chilling string of fatalities and ultimately even a longer string of questions about that community's future.

The broad brush paints interracial tensions as the sole reason for the unrest and the ultimate decline of a once unified, well-tended neighborhood. But many who view it from the inside believe that said race tensions are not as heated as what plays out on the rumor circuit or over the airwaves.

Oftentimes, they say, typical--and not-so-typical--neighborhood disputes are unfairly tagged as racially motivated, while gang activities are folded into the larger realm of racial disharmony statistics.

On the sidelines, however, several grass-roots community organizers, like Santos, attempt to elucidate the deep-seated problems. Problems that have sapped their neighborhoods' resources and strengths for some time--lack of jobs, substandard housing, limited access to education, absent youth programs--the dilemmas, they say, that breed competition, ignite the tensions and sometimes kindle the hatred into violence.

Through all the "negative stuff" says Venice-based community organizer Melvyn Hayward Sr., there have been opportunities to do miracle work. Even without an organization, Hayward, who is African American, was able to do everything from scaring up odd jobs and providing social service relief, to involving black and Latino youths swept up in gangs in video projects that--in 1978 at least--helped calm the tensions.

Latinos, Santos stresses, "do not hate the blacks and the blacks do not hate the browns." Santos, who, like Hayward, isn't tied to any one community organization, sees her role as more of a minister of information, stressing education and opening communication channels along racial as well as generational lines.

Citywide, multiethnic organizations such as the MultiCultural Collaborative, Watts Community Bridges Project, and the Venice-based Oakwood United work to demolish walls by dismantling the stereotypes many have grown up with.

The chasm narrowed, this environment provides a space where two sides can speak out loud, face to face, rather than in whispers behind closed doors. It is within this context that many African Americans and Latinos discover that their struggles have historically been quite similar, that there are more commonalities than differences.

Above all, they hope to communicate that with unity comes strength and with strength comes change.

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